AVMA issues guidance on humane slaughter

First-of-its-kind document addresses each stage of slaughter process
Published on January 14, 2015
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

As this issue of JAVMA was going to press in early January, the AVMA was about to release the second in a three-part series of recommendations for veterinarians on providing animals with as humane a death as possible. The latest document addresses preventing pain and distress in animals slaughtered for food.

The AVMA Guidelines for the Humane Slaughter of Animals is an evaluation of methods, techniques, and agents used for killing hoofstock, poultry, rabbits, fish, and alligators designated to be used for food in accordance with the federal Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act.

It is estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of the U.S. veterinary profession is involved in promoting the health and welfare of animals that will eventually become food. 

Temple Grandin, PhD (center), a member of the Panel on Humane Slaughter, talks with colleagues at the AVMA Humane Endings symposium this past November. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

The 171-page document is the work of the AVMA Panel on Humane Slaughter, which consists of more than 15 individuals, including veterinarians, animal scientists, and an animal ethicist. Over two years was spent reviewing scientific literature and formulating the recommendations, marking the first detailed guidance the AVMA has provided on humane slaughter.

The guidelines contain species-specific information for terrestrial and aquatic species commonly farmed and slaughtered for food. Additionally, every stage of the slaughter process is addressed, from the point of offloading to the animal’s death. The guidelines include information related to regulations, oversight, and training related to slaughter; design of the slaughter facility and movement through the facility; techniques used for slaughter; unique species issues in the slaughter environment; and religious slaughter.

Neither the morality of killing animals for food nor the methods and techniques used in hunting or raising animals for fur or fiber are covered in the guidelines.

“I’m very pleased with the document. The panel worked hard to develop a set of guidelines that ensure the treatment of animals at every stage of the slaughter process is as humane and as respectful as possible,” said Dr. Steven Leary, chair of both the AVMA Panel on Humane Slaughter and the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia.

Earlier, as the Panel on Euthanasia was developing the euthanasia guidelines, it determined that euthanasia, depopulation, and slaughter were areas distinct enough to each require their own expert panel and report. Work on the AVMA Guidelines for the Depopulation of Animals is expected to commence this year.

“The panel worked hard to develop a set of guidelines that ensure the treatment of animals at every stage of the slaughter process is as humane and as respectful as possible.”  
Dr. Steven Leary, chair,
AVMA Panel on Humane Slaughter

While the goal of euthanasia and slaughter is the same—to cause rapid loss of consciousness and brain function in the animal—Dr. Leary said the slaughter process is different in several ways. “With animals designated for food, the range of slaughter techniques is limited, often involving physical methods of killing due to food safety and drug residue concerns,” he explained.

Like the AVMA’s euthanasia guidelines, the humane slaughter guidelines will be updated as new information becomes available.

The guidelines state that violations of the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act must not be tolerated. Animals should be treated with respect at all stages of the slaughter process, and compromises to animal welfare should be treated as unacceptable, if not unlawful.

Practitioners and stockpersons should ensure the following:

  • No conscious animal is dragged, shackled, hoisted, or cut inappropriately. Before invasive dressing begins, all signs of brainstem function, such as the corneal reflex, must be abolished.
  • Excessive force or frequent use of electric prods to move animals off trucks, up and down ramps, or into slaughter facilities or restraint devices is avoided. Animals should not be forced to move faster than a normal walking speed. Handlers should move animals quietly.
  • Nonambulatory or disabled animals are isolated and moved with suitable equipment and provided appropriate veterinary attention. Conscious nonambulatory animals must never be dragged.
  • Terrestrial animals are provided with access to water in the lairage pens; animals should have sufficient room to move in accordance with state, federal, and local statutes; and pens should have room for all the animals to lie down.
  • Slaughter facilities and equipment are well-maintained to minimize injury or pain to the animals and employees.
  • The induction of unconsciousness causes minimal distress to the animal.
  • All personnel are trained in both the application of stunning methods and behavioral principles of animal handling.

The slaughter guidelines are topical in light of public interest in the welfare of animals used for food. “There’s been increased public concern on how animals are raised and handled in agriculture, and that has extended to the slaughter process,” Dr. Leary acknowledged.

When publishing activities are complete, the AVMA Guidelines for the Humane Slaughter of Animals will be available as a free PDF on the AVMA website. Watch for it here. The guidelines will also be available as an e-book from the AVMA’s page on Smashwords.

Related JAVMA content:

Humane endings (Jan. 1, 2015)